Stress May Cause Skin Rashes

Angular CheilitisI recently treated a patient for perlèche, a sometimes painful and persistent rash that occurs at the corners of the mouth. This often fungal condition is typically caused by an overgrowth of Candida, and my patient asked if it could be aggravated by stress. It was the right question to ask. If you are stressed, not sleeping well, and getting rashes and breakouts, it may well be the case that these symptoms are all related.

We hear a lot about the role of stress in promoting cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, but neurodermatoses – psychologically driven disorders of the skin – are very real phenomena, too. Dermatologists routinely see many conditions that can be traced to stress and its effects on the body.

Stress is such a common fact of our rushed and multitasking lives that we have become desensitized to it, accepting it as a fact of modern life. The effects of stress are often invisible (until the blood pressure cuff is on), but when it comes to the skin, the results of stress are highly visible. Some troubling skin conditions start with the simple “itch/scratch” response, but stress can turn that into a preoccupation, prompting more and more scratching, and before long, a bad case of dermatitis results, which then worsens the stress.

When we are stressed, our immune system – the body’s natural defense against disease – is weakened, impacting every organ, including the skin. When the immune system is healthy, its white blood cells, antibodies, and other natural chemicals and proteins identify bacteria and viruses as “invaders” and attack and destroy them. But when stress compromises our immune system, it is easier for infections such as herpes (viral) and perlèche (fungal) to take hold.

Immune cells play a key role in many skin conditions. When they identify a compound as an allergen, it is perceived as an “enemy,” and the immune cells go into overdrive, producing a wide range of rashes, including eczema. When there is an imbalance in the type and sensitivity of the immune cells, other conditions may develop, such as psoriasis. Researchers are also studying the role of the immune system in fighting skin cancer, and we may find that long-term stress makes us more susceptible to skin cancer because our natural defenses simply can’t fight the abnormal cells.
 
Dermatologists can treat chronic skin conditions with prescription medications or surgery, but such approaches may be merely “band-aids” that treat the symptoms but don’t address the real cause – stress. In the long run, we must acknowledge that good health is linked to our lifestyle and habits. To remain healthy, we must take active steps to recognize and combat the stress that is undoubtedly the root cause of so much that ails us.

Fortunately, the more we learn about the adverse effects of stress, the more we can do to treat it. Many companies, large and small, encourage 30-minute lunchtime walking breaks to offset workplace stress. Quite often, simple strategies like light exercise, deep breathing, and frequent stretch breaks can yield dramatic changes by simply breaking the stress syndrome and stopping the flood of harmful stress hormones into our bodies.

When our body’s natural systems are well-balanced, health is the natural outcome. It is well worth the effort to change stress-inducing habits. And as your body’s largest organ, your skin will definitely appreciate the break.

Published on 07/16/2009 | Last updated on 12/20/2016